As it turns out, there are allegations that tens of thousands of immigrants who were detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and held at a private U.S. prison company were also forced into labor at $1 per day or for no pay, which would be a gross violation of federal anti-slavery laws.
The allegations aren’t new. The claims were originally made in a lawsuit filed against GEO Group, one of the largest private prison companies in the U.S., in 2014. However, the lawsuit recently gained class action status, making it the first time that a class action lawsuit accusing a private U.S. prison company of forced labor has been allowed to move forward, the Washington Post reports.
Many of the allegations center around the Denver Contract Detention Facility in Aurora, Colo., which is owned and operated by GEO Group under a contact with ICE. Mind you, the facility was one of the GEO facilities that are used just to house immigrants awaiting their court dates to clarify their status. Some do not end up being deported.
The lawsuit was originally filed on behalf of nine immigrants who sought more than $5 million in damages, although the damages are expected to grow, given the new class action status. That status also means that up to 60,000 current and former detainees at the Denver Contract Detention Facility are now part of the lawsuit without having to jump on as plaintiffs.
The original nine plaintiffs claim that the detainees were forced to work without pay and that those who refused were threatened with solitary confinement. Plaintiffs claim that about six detainees were picked at random each day and forced to clean the facility’s housing units, which the lawsuit says is a violation of the federal Trafficking and Victim Protection Act, which prohibits modern-day slavery, the Post notes.
“Forced labor is a particular violation of the statute that we’ve alleged,” Andrew Free, one of the plaintiff’s attorneys, told the Washington Post. “Whether you’re calling it forced labor or slavery, the practical reality for the plaintiffs is much the same. You’re being compelled to work against your will under the threat of force or use of force.”
GEO Group is also facing accusations that it paid at least $8 less than Colorado’s mandated minimum wage of about $9 an hour, and thus “unjustly enriched” itself through the cheap labor of those being held.
As the Post notes, the troubling accusations have raised concern, particularly given President Donald Trump’s promise to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, who may also be subject to inhumane treatment. Private prison companies also stand to benefit from Trump’s harsh policy of detaining and deporting en masse.
“That means you need to round up and detain more people in order to determine whether they have the rights to stay in this country before you deport them,” Nina DiSalvo, executive director of Towards Justice, a nonprofit that represents low-wage workers, including undocumented immigrants, told the Post. “More people could be moving through, not just in the Aurora facility. More people could be subjected to GEO’s forced labor policy.”
It is also worth noting, as the Post points out, that the stocks of GEO Group and CoreCivic, another huge private prison operator, have jumped since Trump’s election. Both companies donated a collective $500,000 to Trump’s inaugural celebrations.
ICE has declined to comment on any of the accusations because it is not “specifically a party in the suit,” acting press secretary Jennifer D. Elzea told the Post.
But it is ICE’s Voluntary Work Program, which detainees sign up for to work and through which they are paid $1 a day, that gives the practice some legitimacy. In the program, detainees can work for up to eight hours a day, 40 hours a week, cleaning bathrooms, showers, toilets, windows and other locations. However, Jacqueline Stephens, who runs Northwestern University’s Deportation Research Clinic, told the Post that the program does not align with labor laws’ definition of volunteer work.
GEO, for its part, is not so much denying that it makes the detainees work as much as it is denying that pay of $1 per day violates any laws.
“The volunteer work program at immigration facilities as well as the wage rates and standards associated with the program are set by the federal government. Our facilities, including the Aurora, Colo., facility, are highly rated and provide high-quality services in safe, secure and humane residential environments pursuant to the federal government’s national standards,” GEO Group spokesperson Pablo Paez said.
Read more at the Washington Post.